5/25/2009

Star Trek

Everybody loves the new Star Trek but me. Well, me and George RR Martin. And possibly several other people, except I can't remember who they are just now. Like the embarrassing relative at a wedding party who keeps following you around and bugging you, I'm here to tell you just how shit I think the new movie really is.

For a start, it's basically Dubya: The Trek Years. Seriously. Wayward kid with daddy issues who aspires to his daddy's job, but instead of applying himself spends his time getting drunk, hanging out in bars and getting beat up until a father-figure stand-in turns up to give him a stiff telling-to. Next thing you know there's a major terrorist event, he grabs the reigns of power and leads a space-posse to find the bad guys and drop them down a very deep hole.

Let me be clear. I have a soft spot for JJ Abrams, mainly because he gave me Lost and Fringe. Neither is flawless, but in the greater scheme of things, they've given me something to mildly obsess over. But Abrams' Star Trek isn't a movie. It's a Republican Party broadcast.

For what it's worth, the actors generally do a decent enough job with the material they're given. Chris Pine did pretty much the best he could under the circumstances, and the same could be said for the rest. Quinto was always pretty much a shoe-in to play Spock. If you watch the movie in complete neutral, brain off and floating on a sea of caffeinated sugar drink and sweetened popcorn, critical faculties firmly booted out of the room to sulk, you kind of enjoy it. It's CGI as pornography, money shot after gratuitous money shot: big spiky spaceships, shit blowing up, skydiving from space; such things are there not to support the story so much as to replace it. Every five minutes, when you start to think 'just hang on a minute, that doesn't make sense', something goes BOOM and you're staring at the pretty, pretty lights. It's Kurt Vonnegut's 'Harrison Bergeron' as deliberate corporate entertainment strategy.

Now the negatives, and spoilers abound, naturally.

Look, I'm not asking for rigid adherence to the boundaries of Einsteinian physics here, but ... come on. A singularity that eats planets, but handily sucks Romulan mining ships into the past? Bollocks. Are you going to build a mining ship with flimsy awkward platforms hanging over enormous drops? No, I don't fucking think so.

And while we're at it ... Kirk gets dumped on a random planet, chased by a monster, then just happens to wander into the cave where Future Spock's been sitting around on his arse? There just happens to be a Federation base nearby, which just happens to have Scotty in it? And, guess what; Spock just happens to know the means by which the transwarp drive operates, which Scotty handily knows how to program in order to beam our heroes back onto the Enterprise.

Get. To. Fuck.

The same stupefying lack of sanity applies to the Romulans: apparently they decided to just hang about for all this time without traveling back to Romulus in their great big fuck-off so-advanced-it-must-be-from-the-future starship and warn somebody? Tell me, if the Earth was destroyed and you went back in time to before the destruction, what would you do? Float around in space looking moody OR DO SOMETHING? (and don't give me that 'emotionally compromised' line from the film. By that point, I was actually muttering 'oh, come on' out loud in the cinema.)

And that's before we even get to the Red Matter. As at least one internet commenter has pointed out - I think it was Mike Brotherton - apparently this miracle substance, once transformed into a singularity, doesn't work unless you drill a big hole in a planet first. People, if a singularity hit Earth right now, the lack of a big hole conveniently drilled into the ground for it to fall into really isn't going to make one bit of difference.

The destruction of Romulus actually had me swearing at the screen. Apparently there's a supernova endangering the whole galaxy - well, okay; I used the idea of a gamma-ray burster as the central threat in my first novel, Angel Stations. They're threatening because of the amount of radiation they put out. The levels of energy involved are beyond stupendous. But in the movie, we see a planet going all kerflooie when a big wave of dust hits it.

Er, no. Once, twice, thrice, no.

I'm a writer, not a scientist (dammit). But I do at least try to enough research that I can have at least some kind of tenuous grasp on what the hell I'm talking about, even when I wind up breaking the laws of physics with glee. Making shit up is part and parcel of a writer's job. Matter transporters? Sure, why not. It's called suspension of disbelief. But that suspension of disbelief - essential when dealing with this kind of subject matter - goes out the window in the first five minutes when you discover that kids in the twenty-third century like stealing open-top roadsters and listening to the Beastie Boys. Really?

The problem here is essentially that of an idiot plot designed to fit around a series of 'cool' set-pieces designed by people who, if you actually asked them what a star is would, I assure you, have to think about it. A surprising number of people - otherwise entirely intelligent people who tie their own shoelaces and do their own taxes - don't actually know what those twinkly lights in the sky even are. And if you tell them, they'll have a vague sense that they're sort of ... floating around out there, like random billiard balls bouncing around an infinitely large pool table. It isn't because they're stupid. It's just that they're merely insufficiently interested to ever, ever bother finding out. And if they did, they wouldn't care. That's how we wound up with TV shows in the Seventies like Space: 1999. Even then, I knew the idea of the Moon just floating around and randomly bumping into alien planets in that same perpetual game of interstellar billiards was complete dribble, but a lot of people - primarily those that created the show - didn't know, and cared less.

The complete lack of sense or logic in almost every scene of Abrams' reboot can be easily explained by a desire to make the images on the screen look good, regardless of whether or not they contain a single iota of rationality. A starship with a series of platforms strung over the top of an enormous drop and no railings to stop people falling off? But it looks so cool. Check out that artist's rendition of the Romulan ship, guys. How about they have a big drill? They're miners, right? Yeah, and then we can have them jump off the spaceship and parachute down to the drill platform. Well, yeah, sure they have transporters that can get them down to where they need to be in seconds (I seem to recall they're certainly used to get them back off the drill platorm), but on the other hand if they skydive down to it it'll look really cool.

As others have said, Chris Pine sure does spend a lot of time hanging off of things by his hands. On a quick mental recount, there's a cliff at the start, then the drill platform, one of those dodgy hanging-over-a-void platforms in the Romulan ship ... did I miss any? There are scenes shot in what is meant to be the Enterprise's engineering section, but is so obviously the interior of a chemical plant that I was immediately jolted out of any sense they were taking place on board a starship.

All right, I admit it. Star Trek movies by and large, aren't hard to shoot down. I've ignored the more well-known idiocies, like Spock being half-human and half-alien. If you really want to understand beyond even the obvious reasons why this is so startlingly idiotic, I recommend a book called 'What Does A Martian Look Like,' by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, a series of carefully informed speculations about what form alien life might actually take, starting with the observed rules of evolution and the more extreme life-forms occupying some fairly radical ecological niches right here on Earth. Their general conclusion is that such life would probably be so remarkably different from anything we understand as 'life', we might not even recognise it. In other words, it probably wouldn't look just the same as us bar a pair of pointy ears and a habit of making sarcastic remarks about Earthmen. But we can forgive that - somewhat - for the sake of those long-ago episodes that made the series as long-lived as it's proven to be.

Now, I grew up with Star Trek - the original Star Trek, anyway. For all its problems, there were times when it made for outstanding television. And then, unfortunately, there were times when you got see Abraham Lincoln and Genghis Khan duking it out on an alien planet. Or some girl in a silver wig and a desperately unflattering loincloth churning out lines like: 'Captain Kirk, what is this ... love, that you speak of?' I've never been fond at all of the subsequent reboots like Next Generation or Deep Space 9 or any of the rest, since by and large they were so bad they made me cringe. So why am I picking on this movie out of everything else?

Perhaps because of the praise it's been given that I feel is far from deserved; perhaps because I have fond childhood memories of episodes like Space Seed or City on the Edge of Forever. These are the benchmarks by which the movie - all the movies, all the shows - must be judged, and they rarely if ever reached it. If people say this is the best Star Trek movie they've seen since, say, Wrath of Khan, then I must say (with the caveat I didn't see the last couple of films) that it is instead the worst. Chris Pine's Kirk is a wayward kid you wouldn't put in charge of a hot dog stand let alone a starship. Think I'm wrong? Here's a challenge. Go back to the original series of Star Trek, something like Space Seed, which introduced Ricardo Montalban's Khan. Watch it and just try and tell me Shatner's Kirk wouldn't have Chris Pine crying in his milk in a hundred seconds flat.

For all the hamfistedness sometimes evinced in the original series and to a greater extent in those later reboots, the show had one redeeming quality that has been named again and again by commentators and critics over the years: a certain sense of optimism. The show even began with a mission statement of exploration, discovery, and split infinitives. And yet, none of this spirit is evident in this new film. It is, instead, a tale of almost medieval revenge; you kill my planet, I kill your planet, and in turn I kill you.

Gene Rodenberry this is not.

In a way, it's the fault of all of us that such inept, cruddy, irredeemably stupid and downright cynical films are being made, because we all troop off to the cinema to see them, myself included. But there are times when I think, no: I've had enough. Enough of seeing my genre denigrated by people who literally have no idea what they're talking about. Enough of giving my money to charlatans who've reduced movie-making to a kind of visual pornography of set-pieces and special effects. I won't be going to see Wolverine, or Terminator: Yet Again, or whichever episode of Franchise: The Quickening is being churned out to the local cinema this month. Instead I'll be spending my money on the little-known genre movies with big hearts made by directors I've never heard of. Films like Let The Right One In, or perhaps Cold Souls, starring Paul Giamatti, about which I've heard good things. Because in my experience, it's the smaller movies - like Pi, or Primer, or Pan's Labyrinth - that dare to not treat their audience like morons.
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